Ask E.M.: Solo Travel
Welcome to a new series, Ask E.M. A few weeks ago, I asked on my Instagram Stories if there were any questions my darling readers have wanted me to answer that couldn’t be summed up in a few sentences. I received a ton of inquiries, from how I afford my collection of designer shoes to where I like to go when it’s time to treat myself. This is the first part of that series.
Since I was 20, I’ve gone on more than 30 flights to various locales, both familiar and completely foreign. I’d say that about two-thirds of them were solo, a lot of which I’ve shared on social media. Because so many of you know how much I like to travel, it was no wonder that in my first round of this series, I received a ton of questions about what it’s like to travel alone. In addition to all of the flights, I’ve done a number of solo trips to New York (for business and pleasure), nights down the shore, and even staycations here in Philadelphia. To properly answer the question, I went back to my old blog. What I found was pretty interesting, so I’m going to share that change in perspective throughout the years.
Before I get into it, I will mention that if you’re traveling alone for the first time, I wouldn’t recommend traveling somewhere that you’re not familiar with the language or the culture. It’s liberating to do so when you’re ready, but for your first time, getting used to being alone without feeling too isolated is important. If you’re dying to go to Japan by yourself, (which, by the way, I highly recommend) spend a night or two in a nearby city to find out if you can do well on your own without getting too antsy. After all, solitude is a skill, and it’s better to learn with some training wheels at first.
First things first, let’s talk about transportation, a critical component in getting from point a to point b. Naturally, if you’re finding yourself in need of an Eat Pray Love moment, booking a flight to somewhere far away and exotic might seem like the best course of action. It is, I love air travel, despite the anxiety that I get in the air. (More on that later.) However, I’ve found that solo road trips have been amazing for my soul. Also, long rides on trains have been nothing short of a great experience. There are, of course, pros and cons to each, so here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re traveling solo:
By Air: I’ve booked so many solo flights that I have to say that I actually prefer flying alone. The one obvious plus when traveling by air with a party of one is that you have your pick of seat! I’m an aisle girl, (because I’m constantly needing to pee) whereas travel companions of the past have been window kinda people. That usually tends to mean that there’s an awkwardly-placed human between, unless one of you decides to give up your seat of choice. Aside from that though, I tend to get a lot done on planes. When I have no access to internet because who wants to pay $25 for shitty internet for a few hours (not to mention, who wouldn’t want some distraction-free time?), I can write a lot. It’s also usually a great time to catch up on entertainment. I fell in love with This Is Us on a flight from Calgary to Toronto, and also found out that I did not enjoy A Star Is Born somewhere between Philadelphia and Montreal. (Thank you AirCanada—#NOTSPONSORED—for offering such a quality collection of television and film titles.)
Despite having flown quite frequently since I was a kid—my dad even flew small planes and brought me up with him—I get pretty bad anxiety on flights. I think it’s more the claustrophobia than anything. (If you fly often, PLEASE, for the love of God, do NOT recline your seat back all the way, for the sanity of the person behind you.) To combat this, I see flights as this: a judgment-free zone. Not that I sit nude and shovel handfuls of white cheddar popcorn into my mouth like I do at home, but flights are one place where you can exercise your un-curated tastes without fear of retaliation. I watch garbage reality tv. I shamelessly drink whiskey & Diet Cokes. Yeah, I get weird looks from the person sitting next to me, but will I ever see them again? Nope.
As for the cons of flying alone, it can be annoying to have to lug your bags (if you’re like me and only do a carry-on and personal item because you just do not trust checked baggage) all the way to the bathroom or to get food while you’re waiting at your gate. If you’re not a seasoned traveler, the long waits on layovers can get lonely, and if you’re not used to going through security and customs, it can be scary without having someone there with you.
By Car: I do love a solo road trip. If you’re doing it to save money on a plane ticket, beware though: it’s good to have emergency funds for a number of reasons. You never know what kind of small emergencies you might run into on the road: you might get lost and need to spend more on fuel than you planned, or you could need to take it in for some unforeseen repairs. Before you embark on a road trip, you have to determine which type of road tripper you are. Do you map it out and make a note of everywhere you’d like to stop along the way? Or are you like me, and you just wanna get there, only stopping once or twice to pee? Though Google Maps is trustworthy, it helps to keep a road atlas in the car in case you end up somewhere without cell service.
Driving alone is the best time to catch up on podcasts. For long trips, I love story-driven ones. Caliphate is great for this, as is Sold In America. Though the open road can get lonely, it’ll give you a great opportunity to think about things you’re usually too busy to think about. What’s your five-year-plan? What are you most thankful for in your friendships? Driving also gives you a lot of flexibility. Want to leave your destination a day early and check out something new and interesting on the way home? You can do that, and honestly, I recommend it. Driving also makes it a lot simpler to shorten or extend your trip than changing your flight could be.
By Rail: Rail travel is a good in-between for if you want the freedom to not have to worry about navigating like you would in a car, but want more space than an airplane can afford you. Rail tickets can be pricey—perhaps even as much or more than a flight—but there are a ton of options out there and finding a ticket that fits your budget shouldn’t be too difficult. Rail is especially great for traveling between European cities, but there are some great places you can get to on the east coast by train.
Once you’ve determined where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, it’s time to pack! Now, my opinions on this have changed since my early 20’s. I posted this right before my second trip to China when I was 21: it’s a post about what to take with you on the plane when you’re traveling. Now, my air travel must-haves are a LOT more minimal. In addition to my carry-on, I bring a tote bag. In it, so that I can easily access its contents during the flight, is:
A passport holder with my passport, NEXUS card, license, debit card, $50 cash for emergencies, and business cards because you never know.
A phone charger
AirPods and standard headphones—one so that I can listen to music on my phone, which I usually stream so I make sure to have my favorite playlists available offline—and one to plug into the plane to take advantage of their in-flight entertainment
A small tube of hand lotion, sample of face oil, some mouthwash, and Honeypot wipes to stay fresh. (The liquids are with the rest of my liquids in my TSA-approved bag. I keep them in my tote instead of my carry-on so they’re easy to get to.)
My MacBook (now much slimmer!) and charger
A magazine (Saveur is my current favorite) and a book
A pouch containing the remainder of what I tend to carry around: mints, keys, medication, an RX Bar, a spare condom that came in the mail with my birth control, a roller ball fragrance, etc.
And that’s it! TSA Pre-Check is great because I don’t have to take everything out of my bag, but still, who wants to be responsible for so much STUFF?
As for what to pack for the trip and not just the travel, I like to mix and match.For the average five-seven day trip, I stick to the “two jeans” rule: one black, one blue. Three tops that can be mixed and matched plus the one I’m wearing, one dress, two pairs of shoes. (One of which I’ll be wearing.) One or two sweaters, and a top layer, which I also wear when I’m traveling. (Usually a casual blazer.) That’s it! Then, a simplified version of my skincare and makeup routine.
Now that the luggage situation is dealt with, how about what to wear? So there’s a definite stereotype about people from The States… and especially true for people from Philadelphia… that we just love sweatpants. I like to be comfy when I travel but I also think that appearing confident and in-charge is also important. You don’t want to single yourself out as a tourist, you know? This is for a number of reasons ranging from your own safety (Americans are easy targets for pickpockets overseas) and also just because who wants to perpetuate the belief that Americans are slobs? My method of dressing depends on which mode of transportation I’m taking and where I’m going. Here are the rules I stick to:
By Air or Rail: black or blue jeans, Chelsea boots, a clean tee, and an outer layer. (The aforementioned blazer works well.)
By Car: leggings, a nicer crewneck, and some simple sneakers.
The key is to be comfortable while still looking put-together. It’s as simple as that.
Once you’re there, it’s your time to discover who you are—which is the best part. The stress of travel is over and you can explore! But how do you spend your time? There’s a lot you can do, actually.
Do what the locals do? Use resources like Reddit and Instagram to see where the locals hang out. What do they eat? What do they wear? Blend in and learn about yourself by trying to fit in somewhere different—in that sense, you’ll find out what makes you, you. Is your usual order at the bar french fries and a vodka club? Order a salad and a rosé. You might discover something you like that you might not have tried beforehand.
Check Groupon & Airbnb Experiences. Groupon and AirBnb experience both have all sorts of local activities to try, ranging from massages to cooking classes. A spa day will be the treat-yo-self you’ve been needing, whereas a group class or tour can allow you to meet some new people—both local and otherwise—and possibly build up some long-lasting friendships. You can even find someone on there to take photos of you to share on Insta.
Unplug. Though it’s natural to get homesick and want to talk to your friends and family back home, unplug for a little while and re-visit your passion project. I’ve written some of my best work sitting in a coffee shop in another country.
Drop mad coin on a nice dinner. There’s something empowering about spending a lot of money on yourself at a nice restaurant. You may be uncomfortable and feel nonplussed when eating alone, but there’s nothing embarrassing about it. Order what you want, people-watch, strike up a conversation with the server, and leave a nice tip. (Unless you’re traveling somewhere where tipping is considered poor etiquette.)
One last thing to be sure of when you’re traveling alone is that you’re safe and taking care of yourself. If you’re on medication, make sure you have enough for your trip, plus a little more in case something happens and you have to stay longer than you anticipated. If you’re prone to anxiety, have a plan for if/when a panic attack happens. Additionally, make sure you carry a business card for the hotel or write down contact information for your Airbnb host and keep it with you at all times. If you drink, keep your wits about you. Know your limits and don’t drink too much—also know what to look for if you suspect your drink may have been drugged. Take a self-defense class beforehand if you never have. (I recommend this for anyone in any situation, actually.)
And there you have it! Whether you’re in the beginning stages planning your first solo trip or leaving tomorrow morning, I wish you safe and happy travels.